THE WORLD IS VIRTUAL, THIS SANGHA IS REAL
By Jundo Cohen
With Gassho before a body scanner, sitters will enter the 3-D Holographic Zen Hall from wherever they are. Instantly, a high roofed room, Manjusri Bodhisattva at its center, fills the senses and the 10 directions encircling them. Lifelike images of a hundred others who have sat that day (some hours earlier in distant time zones) occupy projected Zafus all around, and the scent of incense perfumes the air. A young priest walks through the room straightening slippers (all made of photons), guiding newcomers to their places. Biosensors in the sitter’s clothing adjust posture with a touch lightly felt at the small of the back. A teacher in far Japan, as if a few feet away, offers a talk and responds immediately to questions. Rising from Zazen, all recite as one the Bodhisattva Vows, prostrating toward Manjusri now seen hovering midair as vast as a mountain. The identical scene appears in Holospaces in every sitter’s home or private place, including for one fellow sitting zero gravity on the long voyage to Mars.
Though sounding like Isaac Asimov meets the Lotus Sutra, researchers at the holographics lab of one of Japan’s best science universities tell me it is just a matter of time now. The ‘HoloZendo’ is not a figment of the imagination, and may be available to carry in one’s pocket. If so, it will not be the first time that new technologies have impacted Buddhist practice. The printing press in China and Japan in centuries past first made sacred texts widespread both for laypeople and monastics, and available to hold in one’s hands. The airplane, telephone, sound and video recording allowed 20th century teachers and ancient teachings to cross national borders without need for perilous sea journey, linking monasteries in the far Himalayas to practitioners in Texas, bringing Dharma around the world.
Now, in the first years of the 21st century, the technology available for Buddhist practice is not quite yet the “3-D HoloLotus Land” … but it is not too bad. What’s more, with a touch of ingenuity and creativity (plus the virtues of patience and perseverance), many of the defects and weaknesses inherent in its use for Buddhist practice can be overcome. Like the printing press, modern means of communication are overcoming various obstacles that have limited the teaching and dissemination of Buddhist practice since the Buddha’s time, especially to laypeople outside monastery walls and those in distant places. Even in the ‘Golden Age’ of Buddhism, conditions were not so ‘golden’ for millions of non-monastics unable to abandon their homes and families to travel to distant mountaintops in search of instruction. While ‘Home leaving’ is the Path for those who can, millions more were bound to home and the duties of caring for family … left hoping for future birth as their one chance to pursue the Way. Would the Buddha have changed his views on the place of “householder” practice if modern possibilities were available? Certainly, the intangibles of “on site” practice … observing the teacher and fellow monks in their daily actions and behavior, living and practicing communally from day to night … cannot be replaced by modern technologies as they now exist. But do other pluses and strengths compensate in important ways, with overall benefits which may sometimes surpass the traditional in key aspects, especially for lay practice?
Our Treeleaf Sangha (http://www.treeleaf.org), now entering its fourth year, may be the world’s most “online” Buddhist Sangha.. Our ‘mission statement’ describes Treeleaf as “a practice place for Zen practitioners who cannot easily commute to a Zen Center due to health concerns, living in remote areas, or work, childcare and family needs, seeking to provide Zazen sittings, retreats, discussion, interaction with a teacher, and all other activities of a Zen Buddhist Sangha, all fully online.” People from over 40 countries, as far away as Kazakhstan, learn the Dharma, share their lives, and sit Zazen together. A few members symbolize who we serve**: Miriam was a 40 year Zenny who came like clockwork to a twice weekly Zazen meeting in Arizona. However, following a stroke, she was left nearly bedridden, unable to make the drive. Almost immediately, activities with the group, all sitting and social contact, were substantially cut off. By learning to use a computer, camera and microphone from her home, Miriam was able to sit with us any day of the week, study Buddhist texts with us, laugh and cry with us. Likewise, Ann is a single working mother holding down two jobs, with no time to visit the Buddhist group gathering blocks from her house. She is able to access our sittings whenever she has the time, 24/7, plus build friendships with other working parents of our Sangha facing similar struggles. Tom is a soldier in Afghanistan who sits with us between combat missions. Bill is a medical volunteer in Africa with no Buddhist Sangha for thousands of miles. Lee was hospitalized for cancer treatments, yet was able to prepare for Jukai with us via video netcast viewed from her hospital bed. She was supported throughout her illness by many of our other members also facing major health issues. Sven attends his local twice monthly Zen meeting in a Swedish small city, but finds he wants more. Through our Sangha and our two way “see and be seen” video Zazen hall (not a ‘3-D Holosuite' yet, but on its way!), he is able to both sit and share social tea with Zenfriends any day, join in our Rakusu sewing circle, Precepts study circle and more. These folks are typical of the people who sit with us. It could be argued that most Buddhist Centers in the west have significantly failed the thousands of interested and dedicated practitioners who just cannot come to sittings because life intervenes.
We encourage our members to attend “in the flesh” Zen meetings in their communities whenever they can. It is wonderful to sit under a roof with others, able to share that kind of interaction. However, it’s just not possible for so many. What is more, Taigu Turlur (the other teacher at Treeleaf) and I have been surprised at the rich, intimate, nurturing environment that can be established in a so-called “online” Zen community. Certainly, there are some things we miss, beginning with the simple ability to hug a member during a life emergency or adjust posture by touch. Yet, our structure offers benefits too, especially in comparison to many non-residential, once or twice weekly or monthly Zazen groups where people come to hear a short talk, then sit silently before heading home, with little chance for social interaction beyond a few minutes before and after. In contrast, our Treeleafers communicate any day, every day, as much as they wish, with fellow Zennies who become real friends over time. People share the twists and turns of their lives, support each other during the ups and downs. We often see people who are more inclined to reveal themselves and share their lives over the internet (given the relative anonymity it can provide), and to drop the masks and facades that sometimes people wear dealing “face to face”. People do open up, often about events in their lives that they have told no one else. We have various video opportunities to chat with each other (including two way video Dokusan), but much of our Sangha’s communication is by written word in our “Forum”. While intonation and body language are unseen, our very diverse, mature, literate, gentle, lovely members are generally superb communicators by writing, and the written format allows a richness of expression, taking of time, depth and thoughtfulness that can be missing from casual oral chat-chat. Our discussions on the Dharma, on Practice and all life are serious business. It is a bit like the story of the blind man who, deprived of his ability to use some senses, learns new paths to richly contact the world through his remaining senses in ways the sighted often ignore. Although “Leafers” are denied aspects of physical contact and communication, they laugh and cry together, support each other, give each other a kick in the pants when needed, are truly Sangha brothers and sisters. At least, as much as any lay Sangha I know.
We have problems too, things we must be very creative to overcome. Sometimes, we have succeeded in transcending the barriers presented by our medium, sometimes not. Many of the problems are exactly the same as most Buddhist Sangha face in the West. For example, as with any group meeting in a building, we have a body of very regular members, but so many other people who come for just a few days or weeks before drifting away. This is just the case at every Zen group I have encountered in America, Europe or Japan. Taigu and I wish we could entice everyone to stay and benefit from this wonderful Practice, but it is not possible. For that reason, we are developing certain resources to get people better involved and feeling ‘at home’. For example, a weekly casual ‘tea meeting’ gathers to share and shoot the breeze by sound and video link, and we are attempting to organize many other online social events as well. We use the “buddy system” so that, if any member enters the hospital or is otherwise unable to communicate in an emergency, her “buddy” will be able to alert us. We are also hammering out a “mentoring” system by which more experienced Zen practitioners befriend and ‘take under wing’ newcomers just getting started. Our art and music circles encourage our aspiring artists, poets, writers and musicians to share their compositions with the community, and anyone is welcome to try. Certain specialized online study groups, in subjects such as Kesa sewing, Buddhist text reading, Oryoki and the like, help build community, as will certain charitable and “engaged” social projects that members are encouraged to join. Finally, our one true “rule” of the Sangha (besides our “rule” to sit Zazen each day) is that members must mutually maintain “gentle speech” in all communication, even when voices disagree on hot issues. Perhaps more than anything, this allows a warm, welcoming and non-hostile atmosphere for new and old, where people can open up without fear.
This year, Treeleaf Sangha took the groundbreaking step of ordaining three individuals, and their training will occur largely by means of modern communication media. We are now engaged in a multi-year course of education, using both new, innovative methods and ancient, traditional methods, combining ‘at a distance’ and ‘in the flesh’, with the one goal of turning these people into ethical, skilled and equipped Soto Zen teachers, ministers and counselors. We know that we have to "get this right" because we are breaking new ground, and it is a heavy responsibility. Our goal is, no more and no less, to turn out Wise and Compassionate, fully ordained priests with the knowledge, skills and ethical standards to serve their students well.
The world is virtual. A most basic Buddhist teaching is that our experience of the world and ‘self’ is a virtual recreation, or outright fiction, built from data passing through the senses into the “3-D Holodeck” of the human mind. In fact, at the heart of the practice of Zazen is the abandonment of judgments and divisions thus created, such as concepts of “here” “there” “now” “then”, distance and separation. All time and space, Buddhas and Ancestors in distant lands and ages past, are encountered in the most intimate terms as Zazen is sat. It is this very same dropping of “distance and separation” which can be taught through a “no near nor far” Sangha like ours. Folks learn to sit and breathe together side by side, intimacy felt without thought of miles. Thus, as I often say, “the world is virtual, our Sangha is real.”
** names have been changed